Luis Suarez has been known to lose his temper but he sat there calmly and listened as he was told people in Ghana consider him the devil. Lest there was any scope for misunderstanding, it was translated into his native tongue: El Diablo.
A dozen years on, El Diablo remained unapologetic for one of his more notorious deeds. It is Uruguay against Ghana, the rematch, on Friday and if the stakes are high now, with the loser certain to go out of the World Cup, they were bigger still in 2010. It was the 120th minute of the quarter-final when the forward who is now Uruguay’s record goalscorer turned goalkeeper, handling to prevent Dominic Adiyah’s header from making Ghana Africa’s first World Cup semi-finalist. Exit Suarez, sent off, only for him to celebrate enthusiastically when Asamoah Gyan ballooned the resulting spot kick over the bar.
Suarez’s stance has remained consistent. “I don’t apologise about that,” he said. “I take the handball but the Ghana player misses a penalty, not me. Maybe I can say apologise if I take a tackle and injure a player and take a red card but in this situation, I take a red card and the referee says penalty. It is not my fault because I don’t miss the penalty. It is not my responsibility to shoot the penalty.”
And while Uruguay’s victory in the subsequent shootout and Suarez’s evident glee scarcely encouraged feelings of forgiveness in Ghana, he may have had a point. Suarez was suspended for the semi-final. His punishment involved missing Uruguay’s biggest match for 50 years. Now, with his side goalless, winless and, at times, aimless, given the passiveness of some of their football so far, there is unlikely to be another semi-final. If Ghana defined Suarez’s World Cup career, Ghana could end it. Suarez was told that a nation of Ghanaians want to retire him. He accepted that.
On the scale of Suarez’s many misdemeanours, a deliberate handball that brought a punishment ranks fairly low. His 2014 World Cup, for instance, ended in more disgraceful fashion and, unprompted, he brought it up. Giorgio Chiellini is the third opponent he has bit on the pitch. Suarez can seem fuelled by grudges but part of his idiosyncratic code involves letting some bygones be bygones. “I played against Chiellini afterwards,” he reflected. “I made a mistake with what I did and then we shake hands and play. You can’t just keep thinking about the past and revenge because that can be counter-productive.”
All of which sounded uncharacteristic, coming from Suarez. And yet, bluntly as the message was conveyed by his Ghanaian inquisitors, there was a truth to their message. As far as the World Cup is concerned, this could be the end. Not just for Suarez, either, but for Edinson Cavani, Diego Godin and Martin Caceres, the other survivors of 2010. Uruguay finished fourth then. Suarez scored three goals. He has seven in World Cups, one short of Uruguay’s national record. None have come in 2022. Suarez’s tournament to date has been an anti-climax: he had just 18 touches in the stalemate against South Korea and was substituted. He was a substitute in defeat to Portugal. “I did have a goalscoring opportunity, my finish wasn’t great and I wasn’t happy about that,” he said.
He is 35 now, back playing in his homeland, apparently coveted by Gremio. He admits he isn’t the player he was when his pace helped make him irrepressible. “Darwin [Nunez] and Maxi [Gomez] can run those longer distances like I used to in the past,” Suarez said. His race is almost run.
The eventual verdict may be that Suarez’s best performance of this World Cup came in the press conference theatre, not on the pitch. His appearance was a surprise though, in the context of his career, it was scarcely the first time he has walked headlong in a storm. “We are facing challenging times and I wanted to take on the responsibility of being here,” he said.
Certainly it deflected attention, and perhaps pressure, from his team-mates. Their potential exit was demoted to a subplot. For perhaps the last time on the global stage, the spotlight lingered on Suarez. It is a sign of his magnetism, of the extraordinary nature of a controversial career, of how resonant a moment 12 years ago remains.
“I don’t know what people are saying, if they are saying it is revenge,” he reflected. “But the players who might play tomorrow were what eight years on back then. Some people may say it is the devil himself.”
But now the devil could be retired by the nation he tormented most.
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